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'It was fun, but there were a lot of bugs': Citizen scientists document wildlife at Maryland Zoo for Earth Day

Amateur wildlife photographers celebrating Earth Day at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore ignored the lions, crocodiles, chimpanzees and other exhibits — and instead turned their lenses up to the sky and down to the dirt to study and document Druid Hill Park’s natural residents.

Keira Wilkie, an 11-year-old who lives in Columbia, snapped a photo of a cardinal high in a tree that some of the dozen or so “citizen scientists,” as the zoo calls them, couldn’t spot.

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Sophia James, 9, of Laurel, swept a butterfly net along the top of the tall grass in a small meadow behind the Farmyard area, peering carefully into the netting for spiders and pill bugs.

Sisters Alice and Rosie Delanoy, 12 and 6½, of Woodberry, dutifully documented centipedes, slugs and other dirt-dwellers that zoo naturalists Peter Martin and Kelcie Myers uncovered beneath a rotting log in the underbrush near the Tree Slide. (Rosie likes bugs; Alice, not so much.)

During the free “Citizen Science” program Sunday, timed to celebrate Monday’s celebration of Earth Day, the children and their parents learned how to use iNaturalist, a website and app that allows users to upload pictures of their observations to an online database, where scientists can help identify and discuss the findings.

“It’s a great way to combine art and science,” said Shannon Delanoy, as her daughters took picture after picture of the different birds and insects in the park.

The zoo naturalists also invited the group to participate in “Budburst,” a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden in which people sign up to track plants’ budding processes, and “BioBlitz,” a program coordinated by the National Aquarium that seeks to find and document as many plants and wildlife species as possible, as part of the 2019 City Nature Challenge competition.

Before the nature walk, Martin demonstrated how to use the iNaturalist app by bringing out Rascal, a teenage Australian kookaburra, who rebuffed Martin’s attempts to get him to “laugh” and nipped sharply at the keeper’s forearm instead of taking the worm he offered.

When Myers took the bird’s picture and uploaded it, the app identified the species from the picture alone. (While the Australian kookaburra is not native to Baltimore, the app geo-tagged the zoo as the location and offered the user a “captive/cultivated” option.)

Even if the app doesn’t automatically identify the species, photographers need not worry if they don’t know much about the wildlife pictures they’re uploading, Martin said. Just be as specific as you can, he said.

“If it’s a bird, put it in as a bird,” he said. “Or ‘animal.’ Or ‘unknown.’ ”

Wildlife experts from around the world use the app and are often happy to assist, he said.

“I have a guy who identifies my bees,” Martin said. “I think he did it from Thailand one time.”

The group met a few male carpenter bees — harmless because they don't sting and identifiable by their shiny abdomens and yellow faces — and a slew of other insects, birds, plants and other small organisms, including a baby dragonfly and a large bullfrog tadpole, in a brief walk in the park.

Each time Martin or Myers held out a new one, the kids crowded around to get a look and a picture to submit to iNaturalist.

Sophia planned to bring her findings to the other members of Bridgeway Girl Scouts Brownie Troop No. 1522, in hopes of earning the Citizen Science badge.

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“It was fun, but there were a lot of bugs, and I don’t like bugs,” she said.

Still, her favorite of the day’s findings was the pill bug she swept up in her net.

“Why was that the most exciting?” asked her mom, Heidi James. “Cause you found it?”

“Yeah,” Sophia said.

The zoo’s next Citizen Science event, “Bumble Bee Watch and the Lost Ladybug Project,” is scheduled for Aug. 18.

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